As the Covid-19 crisis has continued, we have seen more visibly than ever the contribution migrants make to our national life. News bulletins show the pictures of the many people who came from abroad to work in the NHS, and sadly died looking after others. High profile figures spoke in praise of the migrants who have affected their lives. On his release from hospital, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a point of identifying and thanking the migrant nurses, “Jenny from New Zealand … and Luis from Portugal”, who had stood by his bedside whilst he was in intensive care and TV personality Piers Morgan, spoke out in support of migrant workers in the NHS,  demanding we change  the way we debate immigration. Could the very visible immigrant contribution to the pandemic response be a turning point towards a shift in public opinion and an opening for more open immigration policy?

Public support on the rise

In polling we conducted with British Future back in June 2018, almost half (45%) of people said they wanted to see numbers of low skilled workers from the EU reduced. But as our mutual dependence on people in all walks of life has become very clear, from bin men and delivery drivers to care workers and cleaners, our latest polling* finds public support for migrants now appears to extend beyond our ‘NHS heroes’ to those previously reduced the category of ‘unskilled’ workers. 

A large majority (77%) agreed that EU nationals working as doctors and nurses during the Corona virus crisis should be offered automatic British citizenship. But less expectedly, a good majority (62%) also backed offering automatic British citizenship to care workers who have been doing essential work during the Corona virus crisis, and half of people felt that automatic British citizenship should be extended to supermarket and agricultural workers (50% agreed) and delivery drivers (47% agreed).

Even amongst Leave voters, more likely to be sceptical about the benefits of immigration, a huge 72% supported offering automatic British citizenship to NHS doctors and nurses. More than half (53%) supported offering automatic British citizenship to care workers, and a large proportion felt that supermarket and agricultural workers (40% agreed) and delivery drivers (38% agreed) should also get automatic citizenship.

A new moment?

Growing public support offers us a glimmer of hope in the midst of a crisis in which migrants are disproportionately affected. Not only are they more likely to be working in industries affected by the crisis, they are also more likely to be in a financially precarious position.  

At the same time, support for automatic citizenship for frontline workers does not present a ground-breaking shift in the immigration debate, instead it reflects how the public already see immigration. Public attitudes to migration are, for most, more nuanced than simply being ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ migration. The majority of people value the contribution of migrants in the UK, but want to see some level of control, which usually meant selection rather than a crude cap on numbers. Ultimately, when asked they said they valued fairness.

Viewed in that light, recent changes in attitude make sense; to the majority of people extending automatic citizenship, to those who have helped our country in a time of the crisis, is only fair.

Moreover, attitudes to immigration have been softening for some time. Immigration and asylum has dramatically fallen down the public’s list of ‘most important issues’. Just 13% of people in our May 2019 Fear and Hope poll listed it within the top three most important issues facing themselves and their families. It may come as a surprise, but support for immigration has actually grown incrementally over the last decade. In our latest poll the share of people who thought that immigration had done more good for the country than bad was 63%, up from 60% in July 2019, and 40% in February 2011.

Public anxieties over levels of immigration and the debate over the effects of low-paid and untrained immigrants on the labour market have shaped our politics in recent years. But our research has found that concerns about job displacement were not as common as concerns around integration or housing. When low-entry roles were named specifically, people were less likely to want migration limited to stop foreign people taking those jobs, than if they were asked if ‘low skilled’ migration more generally should be limited.  

Moreover, what people consider to be a ‘low skilled’ job is a narrower category than the policy definition. People speak about doctors and lawyers as ‘highly skilled’, but also remark that barbers, butchers, and anyone operating machinery possess a high level of skill and training.  The arbitrary categorisation of migrants, of people, as having more or less value does not reflect most people’s reality.

A fairer immigration system?

So if it is less about skill but about fairness, the real question becomes fairness to whom? And it is this conundrum that muddies the progress on attitudes to immigration. 

In our National Conversation on Immigration, the biggest ever public engagement on the issue, people consistently framed their views through the prism of fairness; they wanted to see a system that was fair to migrants, but also to receiving communities, a system that was also fair to themselves.

We found that people saw migration through a local lens that drew on their own experiences. For many, our conversations were about much more than immigration, and participants often told a broader story about dissatisfaction with their own lives. When people struggled to access opportunity, did not feel they had control over their outcomes in life, and saw migrants as overtaking them, the perceived balance of fairness was tipped and anti-immigrant sentiment swelled.

However, perceptions of fairness are constructed within unfair systems, and sometimes these discontents reflect on what people feel they are entitled to, even if those entitlements are no longer considered to be fair or just themselves. When we spoke to them, some people articulated a belief, sometimes unconscious, sometimes explicit, that they were not receiving their due that stemmed from socially outmoded expectations around race, gender or (British) nationality.  

Yet without pandering to this, our work tells us that we can shape more positive attitudes to immigration by ensuring fairness is met; that the immigration system itself is fair, that migrants are felt to contribute their fair share to society and that British born people have fair access to opportunity and security. 

Building a new consensus

The current crisis has vividly highlighted the contribution that both untrained and highly trained migrants have made to our society, but to create a long lasting change in attitudes we need to pay attention to the opportunities available to everyone in society and make sure our immigration system is correctly calibrated so as to engender public confidence. 

Despite the populist veneer, existing policy on immigration is at odds with the way the public values migrants. The proposed post-Brexit immigration system which awarded points only to those deemed to be high value but provided “no immigration route for lower-skilled workers” doesn’t appear to be in tune with what the public wants from a fair system. In the light of our country’s experiences, the government must radically rethink the flawed, and if truth be told condescending, assumptions that underpinned this approach. We need to move beyond seeing migrants just in terms of economic value, or dividing them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

So called ‘unskilled workers’ such as care workers, supermarket workers, bus drivers and farm workers, are all listed as ‘essential workers’ during the coronavirus outbreak. As charter flights bring in hundreds of Romanian farm workers after a national plea for British applicants failed, the contribution of migrant workers has never been so clear. 

However, the dire predictions for the state of the economy on the other side of the lockdown will provide society with a stark challenge, and maintaining social fairness at this difficult time will prove crucial to protecting positive attitudes to foreign nationals. As the longer term impacts of the crisis begin to hit, tough competition, resentments and frustrations will inevitably grow. If this is met by a politics that breaks rather than builds trust, and politicians that seek to exploit discontent and anger we risk social alienation and mutual ill-feeling. 

Instead what is needed is a vision for a shared society, leadership that unites and a pragmatic focus on solving the real problems in peoples’ lives, not ideology or short-term populism. It is through tackling the long-term issues that cause insecurity and frustration and that feed into anti-immigrant sentiment, that we make long term improvements in attitudes to migration. 

We see right now that a society going through a difficult time can come together instead of falling apart, that hardship can be borne if we bear it together, and with a greater sense of community and solidarity. Across the Atlantic, we can see that division and scapegoating is an equally possible outcome and we must do everything in our power to not let that happen here. 

Those of us arguing for the fair and just treatment of immigrants and refugees must build on this surge of public understanding towards migrant workers on the frontline of the crisis, by looking ahead to the post-pandemic landscape and working for fairness – for all.

* This survey was conducted using an online interview of adults aged 18+ who were sampled from across Great Britain, and weighted to be representative of the GB population.

It was administered by Focaldata.

Fieldwork was carried out between 7th-9th April. Sample size: 2,032